My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report

A year ago, I teamed up with John Palfrey and Dena Sacco to co-direct the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. I came to this project with the strong conviction that policy concerning children’s safety should be grounded in data. In other words, rather than focus on what might be, it would behoove us to take a look at what is and propose solutions to address known problems in ways that align with the logic and social conditions in which kids live. For years, I had been watching policy unfold that would do nothing to help the hurting kids that I met. I was frustrated and wanted to make a difference.

Going into this Task Force, I was extremely naive. I genuinely believed that people were making bad policy, bad technology, and bad decisions because they lacked the data or knowledge to interpret the data. I was upset that so much research was behind the pearly gates of locked-down journal publishers and that, even when accessed, many people didn’t know how to read that material. I believed that I had a responsibility to make research accessible so that it could be usable. I thought that presenting data would motivate people to innovate and devise solutions to help kids. I was wrong.

I’m not good at politics. I don’t understand the logic that operates behind politics and I cannot lie to myself or others to get my way. I am a scholar. I believe in the pursuit of knowledge, the dissemination of ideas, and the education of all. I entered this project to help people understand what we scholars have been following for a long time, but I got way in over my head.

For the our Task Force Report, I helped create a Research Advisory Board Literature Review where, along with the tremendous help of Andrew Schrock, we aggregated research to highlight the known issues around online safety. The patterns are brutally clear. The same issues continue to emerge with each new technology. The kids who are in trouble offline are more likely to be in trouble online and offline psychosocial factors contribute to online risks. Many more youth experience bullying than sexual contact and the realities of “predation” look very different than most people imagine and, thus, require vastly different solutions than most people propose.

The report was released while I was away and I came home to a storm. I’m used to folks dismissing qualitative work because they don’t understand it, but I’ve never before witnessed so many people reject solid quantitative studies done by reputable organizations that are replicated with different sampling techniques across different studies. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect someone to say to me, “Go find other data.” More frequently, as if in a refrain, folks are trying to reject the studies in this report as “old” and “outdated” even though the report makes it clear that the findings paint a consistent portrait and unreleased data show similar patterns. It’s as if nothing would satiate critics who can’t imagine that the real dangers are different than have been portrayed over the years.

I can think of many reasons for why people refuse to listen to data that conflicts with their perception. But what breaks my heart about this is that folks are doing it in a way that dismisses the thousands of youth who are truly in trouble. This shouldn’t be about whether or not the Internet is “safe” or “not safe” but whether or not the kids are ok. And many of them are NOT ok.

After staring at the data, I strongly believe that we need to stop talking about the Internet as the cause and start talking about it as the megaphone. The Internet makes visible how many kids are not ok. We desperately need an integrated set of compassionate solutions. Digital social workers are needed to reach out to troubled kids and guide them through the rough spots. Law enforcement is vital for tracking down dangerous individuals, but we need to fund them to investigate and prosecute. Parents and educators are desperately needed to be engaged and informed. Technical solutions are needed to support these different actors. But there is no magic silver bullet. The problems that exist cannot be solved by preventing adults from communicating with minors (and there are huge unintended consequences to that… including limiting social workers from helping kids) and they cannot be solved by filtering the content. It’s also critical that we engage youth in the process because many of them are engaging in risky behaviors that put them in the line of danger because of external factors that desperately need to be addressed.

If you’re a parent, a teacher, a law enforcer, or simply a concerned citizen, I beg you to read at least the Executive Summary (if not the whole report). The kids need our support, our attention, and our love. They need us to move away from our fears and address the very real dangers and issues that they face. This isn’t a black and white story. This is a very complex set of issues that require people to get informed.

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12 comments to Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report

  • Well, with your diss yesterday and this today, you’ve got me covered with reading for a while yet. In the months ahead, I’m going to be branching out and doing some community work and this is the kind of thing that matters.

  • Brian W.

    Some people did read it and take it to heart, including columnists like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Carroll, though to judge from the paucity of comments to his column, few people read that and took it to heart. Unfortunately, it’s just like Cass Sunstein and others have noted, the more sensational risk always gets priority over the more ‘pedestrian’ risk, no matter the greater likelihood of the latter. As a species and as a society, we suck at risk assessment, no matter the quantitative evidence.

    All that notwithstanding, of course it’s good and necessary that this report got out, because there are still those few who will try to do something useful as a result. Look forward to reading it.

  • Progress is slow.

    The world has been the way it is for so long, things are changing but not as fast as I would like, so I understand and share your frustration.

    Your are doing an admirable work, please accept my encouragements.

    Internet is something incredibly disruptive. Most people are risk averse. That misconceptions about Internet dangers would dominate is rather normal.

    That’s how things work!

    “I’m not good at politics.”
    I don’t believe this to be true, you are just not playing at the same level.

    So, keep fighting, but preserve yourself too. We need people like you, I feel better knowing that you can voice your point of view.

  • Danah,

    I just stumbled across your site today amidst reading a previous researcher’s masters thesis (whose work i will continue). I plan to slowly but surely digest your Dissertation, as the genuine, scholarly, witty goodness that has been your writing thus far has perked me up in what sometimes seems like a stale world of academia.

    congratulations on the Ph.D!

    -Patrick

  • joel hanes

    You write :

    > I can think of many reasons for why people refuse to
    > listen to data that conflicts with their perception.

    You’re crediting your detractors with far too much integrity.

    It’s not that your data conflicts with their own actual
    perceptions of risks on the internet. It’s that your
    data conflicts with the conclusions and fails to support
    the policies that your detractors have adopted a priori,
    and whose adoption was prompted neither by personal perception
    nor by data, but by the necessity of taking a “strong”,
    condemnatory “moral” stance.

    It’s that “moral” condemnation of “predators” and
    the delicious sense of self-righeousness that your
    detractors find impossible to give up.

  • joel hanes

    You write :

    > I can think of many reasons for why people refuse to
    > listen to data that conflicts with their perception.

    You’re crediting your detractors with far too much integrity.

    It’s not that your data conflicts with their own actual
    perceptions of risks on the internet. It’s that your
    data conflicts with the conclusions and fails to support
    the policies that your detractors have adopted a priori,
    and whose adoption was prompted neither by personal perception
    nor by data, but by the necessity of taking a “strong”,
    condemnatory “moral” stance.

    It’s that “moral” condemnation of “predators”,
    the whiff of sexual danger, and
    the delicious taste of self-righeousness that your
    detractors find impossible to give up.

  • Bruce Hughes

    “The great enemy of truth is not often the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

    – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

    Thanks for your work.

  • This is exactly my experience but in another field. I see it not so much as the deliberate ignoring of data and the conclusions that follow from them, but as the inability to perceive them. A type 2 error (false negative) due to being fixated on the type 1 error (false positive) that has already been made. It is more the inability to abandon wrong ideas than the lack of the ability to adopt new ones.

    I see it in exactly the same light that Max Planck did.

    A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grow up that is familiar with it.

    I think that trying to go through the traditional authority figures, (politicians, teachers, parents, police, religious authorities, and social agencies) will not be successful because many of them (as authority figures) are more concerned with “what can I do in solving this problem that upholds my authority” rather than “what can I do to solve this problem”. If the solution requires giving up authority, that solution is unacceptable and cannot even be conceived of. This was the problem the Catholic Church had with pedophile priests. They couldn’t control them because to do so would have reduced the authority of the Catholic Church.

    I think the way to approach it is with the next generation(s). You have the ear of the social network sites; you have the ear of Google and the major IT players. Use that platform to SHOUT that bullying is unacceptable behavior. Let children know that bullying is unacceptable; unacceptable to be the victim and unacceptable to be the perpetrator. Google could place ads as a public service in places where the authority figures will see them; perhaps where perpetrators would have higher exposure too.

    If Google can target ads to potential consumers, then Google can target public service announcements to those it may do some good with. The “problem” isn’t “internet safety”, it is how do we keep children safe until they are capable of keeping themselves safe; on the internet, the playground, the street, at home, everywhere.

  • An analogy to the online/offline difference is the widespread paranoia about using credit cards online, when the risk of handing a credit card to a waiter in a restaurant who disappears with it into the backroom is far greater.

    I have a teacherish bone to pick with both danah’s post above and the report itself–the use of “different than” where “different from” should be….

    From the report’s Exec Summary…

    “The Literature
    Review shows that the risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most
    cases not significantly different than those they face offline, and that as they get older, minors
    themselves contribute to some of the problems.”

    From danah…

    “…and the realities of “predation” look very different than most people imagine and, thus, require vastly different solutions than most people propose.”

    Picky, picky, I know…

  • Immyid

    “Going into this Task Force . . . I genuinely believed that people were making bad policy, bad technology, and bad decisions”

    I read the report, and the bias you admit to having going into the Task Force comes through quite well in the Task Force report. It would have been academically honest to have pointed out that bias in the report itself so that readers of the report, not this blog, could be privy to such information.

    Feigning ignorance of the logic of politics while having a political agenda in drafting an “academic study” that supports your beliefs is the height of disingenuousness.

    If your goal was to help kids, the Task Force report appears to lend itself to the opposite result. By stating, without academic support, that the risk to kids using the internet is overstated (where is the data for such a claim?), you reduce the incentive for 1)parental participation and instruction; 2) commercial technology companies to provide resources designed to help kids; and 3) kids themselves to seek out help when confronted with risk. It does incent law enforcement to focus energy on reminding people of the risk kids face using communication tools that are unfamiliar to parents rather than spending time cooperatively with technology companies on the goal you claim to embrace – - child support.

    Having read the Executive Summary and the Report I truly wonder how it was supposed to help kids. It really reads as a diatribe against shows like to Catch a Predator. What good was that for kids?

    Good luck on your next project.

  • Thank you for doing this important work, Danah. I am inclined to agree with Joel Hanes on the reasons why the “authorities” responsible for monitoring the well being of kids on the internet are so set and stuck in their perceptions.

    I listened to you speak about the huge numbers of kids at risk today, on Here and Now, and I agree with you that trusted adults need to be available for advising, listening and just plain caring about these troubled young people. If the kids are volunteering to have sex with much older men, as you show in your data, it indicates a breakdown in American communities and families of grave proportions.

    Over the top, in your face, psychologically manipulative depictions of sex are big business in all media now, not just on the net. At the same time, backlash puritanism also thrives. Cops get paid to do their cop jobs, researchers get paid to reach conclusions similar to those, pre-set, within the institutions they are funded by. Nobody is really focusing on what makes these kids feel so invalidated and undeserving of healthy, non-sexualized adult attention.

    Kids need to be offered tools to assist them in thinking critically about the graphic images and outside pressures thrust upon them by commercially predatious adults. I agree with you, too, that the internet can offer solutions to the problem and not just exist as resource for “hooking up”.

    I’d like to help in anyway I can. Please keep us posted and up to date on your ground-breaking work in this field so that concerned adults- without a dog in the fight- can act accordingly and appropriately.

  • daniel

    I agree that internet safety is a big issue but I do not think that it should be talked about by huge committees. Internet safety is a family issue to me and should be dealt with in the home, not by politicians. Here is a great example of what could happen when the necessary measures taken.
    http://yovia.com/blogs/chatman/2010/05/04/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-on-internet-safety/?gcid=1677

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